SEOUL (Reuters) - Somewhere in North Korea, more than 500 South Korean prisoners of war have been held for more than half a century, all but certain to spend their final days in the secretive state without a chance of ever returning home.
The 560 are all who remain alive of what Seoul estimates were about 80,000 South Korean soldiers who were left on the wrong side of a Cold War divide when a ceasefire ended the 1950-53 Korean War.
To the North, they were not prisoners, but able-bodied laborers who could help rebuild its war-ravaged economy and might be convinced through re-education that they were wayward brothers better off in the communist state.
Pyongyang has denied for decades it has been holding any South Korean POWs, saying the tens of thousands stayed on their own accord.
It has now became nearly impossible for the North to let any POWs leave because it does not want to risk being exposed in a falsehood it has maintained for decades, analysts said.
“We were discriminated against, spied on and watched. We were not allowed to move,” said Yoo Chul-soo, one of the about 80 former South Korean POWs who managed to escape from the North and then was reunited with relatives in the South.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has pressed the North to return the POWs and wants to use the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the war to launch a joint effort with Pyongyang for the recovery of the remains of soldiers left on the other side of the border.
“The POWs who remain are still living in fear. I was 70 years old when I escaped in 2000 and I knew it was better to die trying than to die in North Korea alone,” Yoo said.
Yoo, wounded in battle, was taken prisoner by Chinese soldiers fighting for the North just weeks before the armistice accord was signed. He was transferred to a work camp north of Pyongyang and never told of the prisoner exchange that was a part of the ceasefire agreement.
“We were put to work and given ideology education.”
The North sent back about 9,000 South Korean prisoners, according to a South Korean government report. Those it kept were sent to work details and forced at gunpoint to sign declarations saying they intended to stay in the North.
North Korea put the South Koreans to work in places such as mines and kept them under guard until about 1957.
It then allowed most of them to enter society, forcing them into marriage with war orphans and widows. The new families were kept under close watch to prevent defection attempts, former POWs and the government report said.
“My father was married in a mass wedding. The North just matched up names, and told people they were husband and wife,” said Lee Yeon-soon, born of one of those couples and now chairwoman of Family Union of Korean POWs Detained in North Korea.
Lee’s father died in 2000 and she successfully made it to South Korea a few years later. North Korea punished her family for her defection bid by sending her mother and brother to a prison camp where they died in custody, she said.
The group, which operates out of a small office in a low-rent area of Seoul, has been pushing for the return of the POWs.
“North Korea is playing the POW card and the families of the POWs are in anguish every day,” Lee said.
“The POWs are over 80 and they can’t return alone. They are also running out of hope that the Koreas will be unified and that they can see their families again.”
Editing by Alex Richardson